Dear Government, Social Media Needs No New Laws

Published: August 18, 2015 07:09 IST
Communications Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad told the Parliament recently that the government was working on a new law like Section 66A of the IT Act, struck down in March by the Supreme Court; the law sanctioned arrests for those who posted "objectionable" content online. 

A Supreme Court judge, hearing petitions to repeal defamation as a criminal offence, recently said that the court could ask the government to rethink a 66A-like law with appropriate checks and balances.

1. Defamation. Everybody thinks social media is a problem that needs to be solved. We are told, for instance, that there is a lot of defamation online. Social media, such is its power, has made it very easy for anyone to spread rumours and destroy reputations. I saw this first-hand when, some months ago, an anonymous Twitter handle spread some rumours about me. Many seem to believe the rumours, especially those who disagreed with my politics. 

I was anguished, but I didn't feel helpless that Section 66A did not exist anymore. I could have taken recourse to the civil defamation law, and I nearly did. In the end I chickened out as the rumours died down because it is daunting for any Indian to run around the courts. 

The same defamatory Twitter handle also spread rumours about a woman journalist who then filed an FIR; the account soon disappeared. The woman reporter who filed the case was not hindered by the lack of 66A, because we already have laws against defamation and sexist comments towards women. Incidentally, section 66A dealt specifically with neither of those. 

Why do we need any new law for social media when we already have a defamation law? What we need is speedier justice so that citizens feel empowered to approach the courts. 

Social media does increase the amount of defamation happening out there. There has been a 23% rise in defamation cases in the UK, thanks to social media. Our already over-burdened judiciary may not have the resources to deal with the rising flood of online defamation cases, but creating a new law won't solve that problem.

2. Anonymity. A lot of people say that the anonymity that social media gives makes people be irresponsible. After all, that Twitter handle defaming the woman reporter, me and many others was anonymous. Had the identity been known, the claims would have depended on personal credibility. The anonymous claimed to reveal "insider" information, whispers in the corridors.

If anonymity allows freedom, why was the account deleted? Here's why. Police or courts will ask Twitter to reveal the IP address, which Twitter and other social media companies are happy to do, if asked through due legal process.

Well, an IP address can be masked using VPN softwares. Twitter and other social media companies have a way around that these days, demanding a phone number to create new accounts. Once we have the phone number, it is very easy to track down the person.

In any case, how did Section 66A solve the problem of anonymity?

3. Trolling and abuse. It isn't just defamation. Everyone complains about trolling and abuse online. I face it too. Day in and day out I get called 'moron' and 'biased-journalist' and 'presstitute' and so on. Most of trolling is not illegal, and abuse is a subjective term. 

Social media platforms give various tools to deal with trolling: report the abusive posts, mute the person, block the trolls, or make your account private. There is nothing the law can do here.

It is very important to report offending posts to the social media companies that host them, and to speak against social media companies on their own platforms if they don't remove the offending posts.

When abuse against women is sexually explicit, there are laws against such abuse and women can file FIRs - as they have. 

4. Terrorism and national security. We are told that the use of social media by terrorist groups poses a national security threat. This is not true. In fact, terror groups do intelligence and security agencies a great favour by using the internet and making themselves vulnerable to surveillance. There must be a reason why there was no internet or phone connection in Osama bin Laden's compound.

It is not surprising that Indian security agencies have not demanded any law to save social media from terrorist groups. Remember how little time it took for the police to arrest the man running a pro-ISIS Twitter handle from Hyderabad. There have been other arrests of pro-ISIS people, including one where two people posted Facebook photos with pro-ISIS T-shirts. 

The Telegraph Act, 1885, applies all Indian laws to all forms of communication. That is why the police registers cases and arrests people for online activities under the Indian Penal Code all the time. Similarly, our draconian anti-terror law, the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, applies to the internet. There is nothing a new law can do, regardless of the nature of the online medium.

5. Communal violence. We are told that social media has made it easy to spread rumours, and that is dangerous in a country where rumour-mongering can spread violence. Once again, we already have laws to check this, and no one has suggested any legal framework that would especially help with social media.

It is more difficult to spread rumours on social media than by word of mouth or even SMS. That's because social media makes it easy to track who initiated the rumours, to deny them in real time, and for the police and administration to be ready on the streets if they see online rumour-mongering.

Facebook posts can be reported, YouTube videos taken down, and so on. And yes, the Indian government has enough real-time mechanisms to deal with social media companies on these issues.

We saw an example of this in Kolkata just last week, when some protests on the streets were described by some on Twitter as a riot and curfew situation. However, it was also on Twitter that these were proved to be false.

We are told that in 2012, North-Easterners were attacked in Bengaluru, leading to their temporary exodus from the city, because of rumours spread on social media. It's a lie repeated so often that it has gained the currency of truth. There is absolutely no evidence that social media caused that incident in 2012.

Another such lie is that videos circulated on WhatsApp caused the Muzaffarnagar riots in 2013. While those videos may have exacerbated the violence, they didn't cause it in the first place. Hate speeches did. What we need is not new laws for the internet but online vigilance. 

India has no dearth of laws, and yet our knee-jerk response to every problem in the country is to ask for special laws. Special laws sometimes worsen a problem, as we saw with Section 66A. 

Cyber crime, like any other crime, can have only one deterrent: speedy justice under existing laws. 

(Shivam Vij is a journalist in Delhi.)

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.

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